Touring – reviewed at Milton Keynes Theatre
The irony can’t be lost on Ria Jones that it has taken her 26 years to receive the long-overdue adulation she deserves for creating the role of fading silent film star, Norma Desmond, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard.
It has been an incredible journey for the actress and, at last night’s opening at Milton Keynes Theatre, there was no doubt that this is a role that she has finally made her own. Ria was the original Norma in a private performance at Lloyd Webber’s home, in 1991, when he tried out the new show in front of invited guests.
Since then she has seen the likes of Patti LuPone, Petula Clark, Diahann Carroll and, more recently, in the West End, Glenn Close, claim ownership of the role. But at last year’s West End revival at the London Coliseum the Welsh musical theatre star had to step in after Glenn Close became ill and, whisper it quietly, Ria stole the show.
Now this unmissable musical, starring Jones and Danny Mac, is touring the UK. It is an extraordinary and tragic story that is both a love letter to movies and a eulogy to Hollywood’s silent era.
At its heart is Norma Desmond, once showbiz royalty and now faded and forgotten thanks to the advent of talkies. She lives in splendid isolation in an Italianate mansion on Sunset Boulevard with her memories of a glittering film career, dreaming that one day she will return to the spotlight.
Until then the glamorous, ageing, star replays her old films and is cared for by her faithful and utterly devoted servant, Max. A tragic victim of Hollywood’s rapacious pursuit of youth, beauty and progress, Norma refuses to believe that her star has waned.
When hard-up writer Joe Gillis (Mac) stumbles into her life, she sees a lifeline and refuses to let him go, with terrible consequences. Norma tempts him with the offer of rewriting her comeback movie, Salome, then keeps him a virtual prisoner in her luxury home.
Weak, opportunist Gillis fights her possessiveness, wanting independence – particularly as he’s falling in love with Paramount scriptwriter, Betty Schaefer – but it’s a lost cause.
Dragged into her life through emotional blackmail, he finds himself trapped.
Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s wonderfully melodramatic story is a perfect fit for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soaring music.
True, there are moments in the score when you think you’ve heard passages before. There’s a bit of Joseph, a snatch of Phantom, a smidgen of Evita, and more, but it’s largely irrelevant when the musical has such a terrific breadth of styles.
Danny Mac is revelatory. He’s matinee idol perfect and gave the audience a special ‘MacMoment’ last night, emerging from a ‘pool’ in nothing more than swimming trunks. There was an audible gasp in the auditorium.
The heartthrob (no use denying it, Danny), who has made a name for himself in musical theatre with roles in On The Town, Legally Blonde, Les Mis and Wicked, offers a complete package – a terrific singing voice, a Strictly super dancer and a versatile actor – and he excels here as a gigolo and chancer.
Fleeing from bailiffs Gillis finds himself in the grounds of Desmond’s crumbling palazzo. Joe sees a woman carrying, what turns out to be a dead chimp (don’t ask). He seems to recognise her.
“You used to be in pictures; you used to be big,” he blurts out.
“I am big — it’s the pictures that got small!” replies an indignant Norma.
Ria Jones simply dazzles as the larger-than-life silent screen star who refuses to surrender to obscurity. Every song and word of dialogue is packed with power and emotion. The denouement is heartbreaking.
Supporting the duo is an astonishingly moving turn by Adam Pearce as the loyal Max. His vocal range is quite amazing and his part in the couple’s relationship is truly poignant.
The show features a large ensemble who largely make-up the employees at Paramount Pictures and they are magnificent.
It is impossible to find fault in this glorious show. Lee Proud’s splendid choreography, Colin Richmond’s wonderfully evocative set, a superb live orchestra, directed by Adrian Kirk, are all outstanding.
Not one to miss.
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